Oregon’s Bail System: Background (PT I)

Earlier this summer when artist Jay Z wrote an Op-Ed in Time Magazine where he shared his point of views on the bail bond system in America, a lot of people started talking. After this celebrity took his stance, people all around the nation began asking the question “Is America’s bail system fair?”

In order to answer that question, we must first understand the history of the bail bond industry. Believe it or not, my home state of Oregon plays a very unique role in this discussion.

The earliest known example of the bail bond system dates back to medieval Europe when warlords would pay bandits to go after their enemies who had fled the dungeons. Ever since then, the act of tracking down wanted criminals has become a multi-million dollar industry for states all around the nation. In fact, there are only 4 states that don’t allow commercial bail bonds – Oregon being one of them. While the Oregon constitution has historically been writ with bigotry – blacks weren’t allowed to live in the state legally until the late 19th century and Oregon has a unique non-unanimous felony jury that was used to discriminate against minorities, specifically Jews – the outlawing of private bounty hunting has been applauded by many as being forward thinking.

Since the medieval times, the bail system has evolved from a bounty hunter run industry to a government run system that monitors people in pretrial. With Oregon outlawing commercial bounty hunting, the bail system is more on the good faith of the accused criminal.

For low level crimes, once you are convicted of a crime and arrested you are held in jail for a waiting period until you are charged of the crime. You then get the option of paying a fee to get out of jail. If you choose not to pay – often because you cannot afford the fee – then you are held in jail until your court date (sometimes months after the act of the crime). For those who choose this route (those who cannot pay bail) the consequences can be huge. Often times people get laid off from their job, they don’t see their family, their health and well being can also deteriorate, leading to medical expenses once they are released.

If you are able pay for the bail expenses, you must attend your court date. If you miss your court date, the State will issue a warrant for your arrest and reach out to commercial bounty hunters to track you down – except for in four states, including Oregon. However, in this day in age jumping bail is a rare crime. Once you jump bail, it goes on your permanent record immediately, which comes up when you take money out of the bank, apply for a job, buy a plane ticket or buy a home or hotel room.

When Jay Z questioned the fairness of the bail bond system, he was not questioning the apparent need for such a program. The basic idea of the bail system makes sense. In order to keep people out of jail but incentives them to attend their trial, requiring a financial down payment makes sense. Instead, Jay Z is questioning how such a program in practice.

We will look at how the program works in the next episode of this in depth look at Oregon’s Bail System.




2 thoughts on “Oregon’s Bail System: Background (PT I)

  1. A very interesting history of a really unfair system. I look forward to reading what you think is the best way to fix the system. I would, particularly, love to talk to you about it. It’s a topic that comes up all the time in Chicago, but no one ever seems to have a real answer. On an related subject, I’m one who believes that people should not be incarcerated for small possessions of marijuana–perhaps fined if it’s illegal in your state, but jail-time seems over-the-top.,


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